7

Manila, the seat of colonial political power in the Philippines, spawned 16 geographical districts—known as arabales, or suburbs—mostly drawn up during the colonial period. One of the busiest and most important of these arabales is Quiapo, situated north of the Pasig River. Originally a residential area for Manileños with means, the district evolved to become Manila’s downtown from the 1920s to the 60s—a unique and potent melting pot of commerce and entertainment, politics, and religion.

At the heart of Quiapo is a public square known as “Plaza Miranda.” Little is known, however, about the man for whom the plaza is named, a certain Jose Sandino Miranda, who was Secretary of the Treasury between 1833 and 1854.

This geographic center of the district has seen countless demonstrations throughout its long existence—from religious processions of devotees of the Black Nazarene to gatherings of political partisans.

Located no more than a kilometer from Malacañan Palace, Plaza Miranda was the largest venue from which rallyists could be physically close to the residence of the country’s chief executive, whether in loyal support or oppositionist denunciation.

In the era of grand demonstrations and mass mobilizations, National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, in his Almanac for Manileños, described Plaza Miranda as “the crossroads of the nation, the forum of the land.” President Ramon Magsaysay, arguably the most popular of our postwar chief executives, famously recognized the square as a gauge of public opinion when he asked a proponent of a policy or project: “Can we defend this at Plaza Miranda?” Far removed from the closed, air-conditioned rooms of Congress or cushioned seats in public buildings, bringing an issue to Plaza Miranda was the ultimate act of transparency and accountability, where the people, any Juan or Juana de la Cruz, could question their government.

Plaza Miranda, circa 1945, taken from the entrance to the Quiapo Church.
(Photo courtesy of Mr. John Tewell.)

In the half century that Plaza Miranda served as the country’s foremost public square, three events stand out. The 1946 Presidential elections pitted incumbent President Sergio Osmeña versus his protegé-turned-rival Senate President Manuel Roxas. Osmeña, upholding traditionalist notions from the prewar era, refused to campaign and delivered a solitary yet scathing speech in Plaza Miranda:

“(S)o I am here before you, to see me, to listen to me. Probably my hair is grayer than it was a year ago, but I assure you that this was not because of worry about the elections, but rather because of my grave responsibilities and preoccupations concerning our country, so rashly imperiled by the big ambitions of small men … ”

Osmeña lost the election to Roxas, founder of the breakaway wing of the old Nacionalista Party that would eventually become the Liberal Party (LP), who mounted a nationwide campaign, going house-to-house, and giving stump speeches in town plazas. Barely a year into his term, Roxas also delivered an important speech in Plaza Miranda—rallying the Liberal Party to support the Parity Agreement to the 1935 Constitution, which granted American citizens equal rights with Filipino nationals in the use of national natural resources. Just as the President finished speaking, a man lobbed a grenade on the stage, prompting General Mariano Castañeda to kick it away and cover President Roxas with his body. The grenade landed near the audience, killing two and wounding a dozen people.

August 21, 1971: Liberal Party Senators assembled in
the Plaza Miranda: Jovito Salonga (center), Sergio Osmeña, Jr.,
Ramon Bagatsing, and Gerardo “Gerry” Roxas.
(Photo courtesy of the Gerry Roxas Foundation).

Two decades later, after President Marcos won reelection in 1969, only to plunge in popularity as the peso was devalued and inflation and student demonstrations rocked the land, the sons of Presidents Osmeña and Roxas united under the LP, in opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos. Senators Sergio Osmeña Jr. and Gerardo Roxas both figured in the third, perhaps most infamous, incident in Plaza Miranda, which would indelibly link the Liberal Party of the Philippines to Plaza Miranda’s identity as the forum of Philippine democracy.

The political situation in Manila and throughout the country was at a fever pitch. Growing disenchantment with Marcos put his political future at stake with the 1971 midterm Senatorial elections, the traditional dividing line between continued political relevance or a reduction to political lameduckhood for an incumbent.

August 21, 1971: Liberal Party President and Senator Gerardo “Gerry” Roxas
endorses the LP slate for the City of Manila, led by Ramon Bagatsing.
(Photo courtesy of the Gerry Roxas Foundation.)

On August 21, 1971 at the miting de avance of the Liberal Party in Plaza Miranda, the square became the scene of two simultaneous grenade attacks that nearly liquidated the party’s leadership, just as Senator Roxas, Liberal Party President, was proclaiming his party’s local candidates for the City of Manila.

Among those seriously injured were: Roxas, Osmeña, Senators Jovito Salonga, Genaro Magsaysay, Eva Estrada-Kalaw (Nacionalista guest candidate of the LP), and senatorial bets John Henry Osmeña and Ramon Mitra, Jr.

Roxas would hold President Marcos responsible for the attack:

“The Plaza Miranda incident has illustrated beyond doubt that there is not a safe place in the country where people may express their views without having to face the perils of assassination.

I have only one message to leaders, followers and the electorate: Nothing will deter the LP nor dampen its determination to win the mandate of the people this election. We shall continue to fight for the right of our citizenry. I am grateful to the Almighty for those of us who were fortunate to have been spared.”

The audience at the Plaza Miranda,
caught in a panic following the 1971 blast.
(Photo courtesy of the Gerry Roxas Foundation.)

Widely considered the most blatant assault on free speech and guaranteed democratic rights at the time, many quarters believed it to be masterminded by Marcos himself, which led to increased opposition to his administration. Three months later, the polls resulted in a Senate sweep by the Liberals, with only two Marcos allies making it into the winner’s circle. The President’s alter egos—Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Secretary of Labor Blas Ople—were among the losers.

Edward R. Kiunisala, in his article “The Outrage,” published in the Philippines Free Press, wrote:

“It will take a long time before Plaza Miranda, the symbol of free expression, will be as it used to be. No one will ascend the Plaza Miranda stage again without fearing for his life. How much of the militancy, the courage, the national pride and the spirit of the Filipino people have gone that Black Saturday at Plaza Miranda?”

The 1971 Plaza Miranda Bombing was, in a way, the square’s last hurrah as the country’s foremost stage for political discourse. The advent of mass media, which allowed candidates to reach a wide audience through television or the radio, political rallies have been reserved for proclamations or the traditional miting de avance. While no longer the grandest nor most prominent political forum, Plaza Miranda continues to remind Filipinos that Philippine democracy was not only restored in 1986, but is alive and free.


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